As the Trump administration continues to deal with the fallout from its decision to separate families at the border, as well as a reversal of that practice in a subsequent executive order, there remains an unanswered question: Who is in charge?
Multiple agencies, including components of the Departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and Justice, all own pieces of the puzzle.
But as the agencies work to reunite the more than 2,000 children still in government custody separated from their parents – and tease future implementation decisions to come – no one agency or official has said they’re leading the way, or that the buck stops with them.
HHS Secretary Alex Azar told lawmakers Tuesday his agency is caring for 2,047 children who were separated from their parents – down only six children from the 2,053 HHS said were in their custody on June 20, the day President Donald Trump signed an executive order meant to keep families together.
CNN asked each agency to respond to several detailed questions about who is leading the charge, when secretaries last visited the border to see the situation first-hand and who ultimately bears responsibility for the reunifications.
A spokesman for the Justice Department referred questions to the White House, which did not respond. The other agencies did not provide a response.
Officials have been huddling for days across agencies to try to figure out how to implement both Trump’s vision for zero tolerance at the border and his new directive to keep families together, with press shops at departments struggling to keep up with reporter questions for details.
In some cases, press offices have even put out conflicting messages – with the Justice Department insisting “zero tolerance” was still in effect even as Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, told its field offices to stop referring parents for prosecution.
Time for a ‘czar’?
Meanwhile, the calls are growing across the aisle for the administration to appoint a “czar” or point person to lead the effort.
So far in the month of June, the most prominent member of the Trump administration to visit the border and facilities where children are being held was first lady Melania Trump, while multiple members of Congress have made such trips.
Sessions has not returned to the border since announcing the policy in May. Nielsen visited the border in Arizona on May 31, including a border crossing.
“What I witnessed during my trip to the US-Mexico border, is that a clear fragmentation between federal agencies exist – all while families remain separated, this is unacceptable,” said Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman in a statement. “There is no one designated individual tasked with coordinating and cutting through the bureaucratic red tape to reunite families.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said over the weekend a “czar” could be the answer.
“The federal government now finds itself in a situation where their right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing when it comes to the goal of reuniting child with parent, and so a czar to oversee this reunification process makes a lot of sense.”
In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday to update the public on reunification efforts, HHS officials said their responsibility was mainly to vet sponsors, who could be a parent or relative, who may come forward to take children. Officials said HHS works with the other agencies to do three things: link the records of parents and children in different agencies’ custody, to “ensure that contact occurs” between them and to reunify the parents as soon as practicable.
Who’s in charge?
At different times, different Cabinet officials have been out front on the issue.
The day that the Department of Homeland Security confirmed its decision to refer all adults caught crossing the border illegally for prosecution, including parents, which was what triggered the family separations, it was Attorney General Jeff Sessions – who leads the Justice Department – who appeared before cameras to promote the policy, saying, “If you’re smuggling a child, we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably. … If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.”
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen continued to defend the policy in congressional hearings in the following days, and appeared at a late-evening White House press briefing on June 18, two day s before Trump would sign an executive order reversing course.
Meanwhile, HHS Secretary Alex Azar began to answer questions at public events and congressional hearings as his agency’s role in the separations became clear.
CNN’s Sunlen Serfaty contributed to this report.